Auroran released after serving 10 years on murder conviction

By Matt Hanley March 6, 2012

In his home, Larry Clark has a stack of letters from his nephew, Jonathan Moore.

Moore, 30, has been writing to his uncle for nearly a decade, ever since he was sentenced to 75 years in prison for a 2000 Aurora murder.

In the letters, Clark said, Moore has been angry, sad and hopeful. He always maintained he was innocent. However, in the last few years, Moore sounded resigned to dying in prison.

But on Tuesday, Moore walked out of the Kane County Courthouse a free man.

In an unlikely twist, his murder and attempted murder convictions were vacated after two Aurora police officers found new evidence that exonerated Moore.

Moore was convicted in 2002 of the murder of Shawn Miller, 20, of Montgomery, and the attempted murder of Leroy Starks, then 17. He was scheduled to get out of prison 2057.

In April of 2011, according to court documents, Aurora police received information from a confidential informant that someone else had committed the murder. Aurora investigators John Munn and Darryl Moore (no relation) pursued the new lead and found new witnesses who had not originally come forward.

In a brief, low-key hearing Tuesday, Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon and Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Engerman filed a motion to vacate all of Moore’s convictions. Moore was handcuffed and wearing a black prison jumpsuit when he heard Judge Timothy Sheldon approve the motion to vacate. Moore only nodded his head slightly, while his uncle — seated in the audience — burst into tears.

The judge praised the work of Aurora police officers and prosecutors who stepped forward when new information came to light.

“This court is impressed with your professionalism and your sense of justice,” Sheldon told the prosecutors and detectives.

The murder

Miller, Starks and a young woman were standing outside a laundromat in the 0-99 block of Lincoln Avenue in Aurora at 5:45 a.m. Aug. 24, 2000, when someone opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol. Miller died in surgery the same day. Starks was paralyzed from the waist down. The woman was not hit.

Police quickly zeroed in on Moore as a suspect in what they considered a gang-related murder. The shooter was described as a black male, about 17 years old, 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds. Moore is 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, according to prison records.

Moore was arrested and within two days, the then-19-year-old gave four interviews to police. According to Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas, the first interview lasted more than three hours. Moore was allowed bathroom and cigarette breaks during the interview, Thomas said.

Eight hours later, Moore talked to police for 45 minutes, then another 38 minutes, Thomas said. Finally, at Moore’s request, he talked to police for another 50 minutes, Thomas said. During two of the recorded interviews, Moore put himself at the shooting, Thomas said.

Police recovered the gun, which was tied to the murder and another second shooting the same day, Thomas said.

Moore went to trial in 2002. The two surviving shooting victims identified him as the shooter. He was sentenced to 38 years on Miller’s murder, to be served consecutively to a 37-year sentence for the attempted murder of Starks.

“I know if I had not joined a gang, I would not be sitting here today,” Moore said at his sentencing, in a statement read by his attorney, Fred Morelli.

Moore appealed his conviction. The conviction was upheld in 2004, although the sentence was reduced by 5 years. In 2007, Moore filed another petition, but dropped that.

To both police and prosecutors, the case was closed.

New evidence

According to court records, in April of 2011, a confidential informant met with two Aurora detectives and said someone other than Moore had committed the murder. Based on that information, police began to re-examine the murder case.

McMahon said his office was notified. Because of the new information, McMahon said he had serious questions about Moore’s guilt. He assigned a prosecutor who was not involved in the original case to assist Aurora police. The investigators re-interviewed people who were originally questioned, as well as new people who Thomas said had not come forward in 2000.

McMahon said at some point he came to believe the man sent to prison was not the killer.

“We took action based on what we believed was the truth,” said McMahon, who was not with the state’s attorney’s office in 2000.

“(Vacating the convictions) was a difficult decision, but I’m confident it was the right decision based on what we know today. The goal, both then and now, is to pursue the truth.”

As of Tuesday, no one has been charged in the murder. Police and prosecutors declined to offer more details about the case because it is now an open investigation. Anyone with information is asked to call Aurora police at 630-256-5500 or CrimeStoppers at 630-892-1000.

McMahon said prosecutors talked to victims’ families, and they were comforted knowing police were pursuing the truth. Neither Miller’s family nor Starks could be reached Tuesday.

“Certainly, this opened up a very painful period in their life,” McMahon said. “They’re not happy they have to re-live it.”

A free man

After the Aurora officers met with Moore in prison, attorneys from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project got involved in the case. The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project has handled 208 cases of people who may have been wrongly convicted, but staffers said this is the first time police have pushed a defendant’s innocence.

“It’s just incredible,” said Larry Golden, director of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project. “The police officers deserve tremendous credit. This is unheard of. I know we haven’t had a case like this. This is the kind of county you want to live in.”

After the hearing, Moore was taken to a small conference room outside the courtroom. About two dozen supporters and courthouse personnel waited as he changed clothes.

Moore stepped out of the room in a blue suit, blue checked tie and brown shoes. His white shirt was a bit too small, so the top button was undone. Clark straightened his nephew’s tie before the men embraced.

Moore did not smile or cry. He scanned the crowd with wide eyes.

“I’d like to tell you all thank you for working on my case,” he said quietly. “I’d like to tell you all thank you for believing me.”

Clark was ecstatic to see his nephew.

“He’s been fighting for his freedom since Day One,” he said. “I just thank God. Nobody else could do it but God.”

The group walked down the hallway, smiling and taking pictures. Moore walked amid the group quietly. He declined to talk about the case Tuesday.

“Let go get this boy some lunch,” Clark said.

Moore was supposed to spend the next 45 years in prison. Around noon Tuesday, he stepped out of the courthouse a free man. The sky was clear blue as he walked into an unexpected future.

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